Apple's "iCloud" is making lots of headlines this week, first with new details of renewable energy investment attached to the company's massive "iCloud" data center in North Carolina, followed a day later by news that Apple has bought land next door to Facebook's data center in Oregon for a second facility that is likely to be powered by dirty energy. The announcements have drawn a lot of attention because data centers use a huge amount of electricity to deliver our photos, videos, and music to our "iDevices."

While Apple has been more than happy to draw the media's attention to how large the solar farm is, it has kept its lips stapled firmly shut when it comes to just how much coal will still be required to power the cloud.

Let's take a closer look at the significance of the latest news from Apple:

How big is Apple's iCloud Data Center?

The physical size of Apple's new data center in Maiden, North Carolina is pretty hard to hide—about 2-3 times the size of a Super Walmart. Apple has managed, however to keep all the energy details under tight wraps. Based on its announced $1Billion (USD) investment in North Carolina, Greenpeace conservatively estimated last year in our report "How Dirty is Your Data?" that Apple's Maiden data center would demand 100 Megawatts (MW) of power if fully operational. Translate this into homes, this would be equivalent to the demand of 80,000 average U.S. Homes (or 250,000 EU homes). Some analysts have indicated that Apple may be putting far more than $1B into North Carolina, having spent over $700 million just on the building, which could mean an even larger energy appetite.

The Good: Energy Efficiency & On Site Renewables!

Though it had been rumored nearly as much as the launch date of the iPad 3, in its latest facilities report released Monday, Apple confirmed that it was putting a 20MW solar farm on the property next to the data center. The report also disclosed that Apple will also be adding 5MW of fuel cells, powered by biogas. These are all smart investments by Apple, and good first steps in replacing the dirty electricity that comes from Duke Energy, the local utility in North Carolina.

Apple is proudly touting both the solar farm and the fuel cell investments are the "largest end user-owned"(for solar) and "largest non-utility installation" (for fuel cells) in the country. But how much of the iCloud's voracious energy appetite will these on-site renewables meet? Apple claims they will provide a "high percentage". While some might think that a 20MW solar array + 5MW fuel cell would mean a 25% renewable investment, here is Greenpeace's estimate of what these investments are actually likely to provide:

iCloud Data Center Details Estimated Annual Energy Produced (Consumed) MWh % of energy for 100MW Data Center
Estimated energy demand of $1Billion iCloud Center (Greenpeace figures) 876,000 100%
Estimates of how much iCloud Center demand is met by renewables:    
Energy from 20 MW Solar Farm (Apple figures) 42,000 4.8%
US DoE Estimates of 20 MW Solar Farm (Maiden, NC-fixed axis) 25,291 2.9%
US DoE Estimates of 20 MW Solar Farm (Maiden, NC 2 Axis) 32,920 3.8%
5 MW Fuel Cell 43,800 5%
Combined RE (Apple figures) 85,800 9.8%
Combined RE (DoE w/Fixed Axis) 69,091 7.9%


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the exact solar technology being deployed has not been disclosed, Apple also appears to be very optimistic about how much electricity they will produce from the solar farm, based on DoE estimates of solar generation capacity for Maiden, NC. While we hope they are right, Apple solar energy generation claims are between 27%-66% higher than U.S. Department of Energy calculations for that latitude for a 20MW system.

So, based on our conservative estimates of the electricity demand of the data center (100MW) and what Apple has disclosed, somewhere between 8-10% would come from renewables, or possibly slightly less given that Apple may be building a larger facility than initially announced.

The Bad: Duke Energy=Dirty Energy

With Apple covering roughly 10% of its energy needs with on site renewables, that means that the other 90+% comes from the local utility, Duke Energy. According to the US EPA [eGrid, 2007] more than 90% of the electricity generated in North Carolina comes from either coal (61% Coal), or Nuclear (31%). Duke Energy has several large coal fired power plants nearby the iCloud center, and if that wasn't bad enough, these plants run on coal mined through "mountain top removal," causing the destruction of communities and entire ecosytems in the Appalachian region of the US.

Duke is very proud of having lured Apple to North Carolina, and expects Apple to be "one of its largest customers." Apple could use its standing and influence as a major customer to pressure Duke to help it clean up the other 90% of its electricity supply, but thus far, Apple is again silent.

The Ugly: Prineville and PacificCorp

Coincidentally, just a day after the President's day release of its renewable energy investments for its Maiden iCloud facility, Apple confirmed that is has bought land for another data center in Prineville, OR, very close to Facebook's first data center, and claims that it will be "green." While the cool climate in Prineville will help Apple cut down on energy needed for cooling, the local utility is Pacific Corp. Oregon has a significant renewable energy resource, but the electricity that Pacific Corp sells to its Oregon customers is over 60% from coal, and similar to Duke Energy, remains firmly committed to coal.

What Are Other IT Companies Doing?

While Apple has apparently followed Facebook to Prineville, it has not yet followed Facebook in committing to power its iCloud with renewable energy. Facebook recently committed to "unfriend coal" and power its data centers with renewable energy. As highlighted in our How Dirty is Your Data? report, Google, Yahoo!, and others are significantly outperforming Apple, with much higher amounts of clean energy, and now add Facebook to that list.

Apple certainly deserves credit for putting a significant chunk of on-site renewable energy generation capacity in North Carolina. But if Apple is really interested in having the "high percentage" of renewable energy it claims to want for the iCloud, it will have to look beyond the initial steps for on-site generation and put pressure on its electric utilities. Google has led the way by using its large profits to make substantial investments in renewable energy and secure large long-term purchases of wind energy. Google is now claiming to be 35% powered by renewable energy, and we estimated Yahoo! to have over 50% of its electricity coming from renewable sources. We still need to see further improvement by the likes of Google and Yahoo!, but Apple lags far behind. As Apple's operation grows with more and more data centers to power our new digital way of life, they have a huge opportunity to be a leader in the IT sector and make smart choices to cleanly power the cloud.

Greenpeace will be releasing an updated analysis of the clean energy performance Apple, Google, Facebook and other major "cloud" companies in mid April.